What to Look for When Selecting a Montessori School

Although most Montessori schools try to remain faithful to their understanding of Dr. Montessori’s insights and research, they have all, to some degree, been influenced by the evolution of our culture.

Perhaps a more relevant question in selecting a Montessori school is to consider how well it matches your sense of what you want for your child. No one educational approach can be right for every learner.

It is wise to seek out the best fit, not only between the student and the school, but also between the parents’ values and goals for their child’s education and what a given school can realistically deliver. Finding the right school for parents and guardians is as important as finding the right school for the child. In the end, the selection of a Montessori school comes down to a matter of personal style and preference. If you visit a school and find yourself comfortable with its culture and approach, it will help you begin to define what you believe to be a good school choice.

In determining which school is best, you should trust your eyes, ears, and gut instincts. Nothing beats personal observation. The school that one parent raves about may be completely wrong for another family. Conversely, a parent may have decided that “Montessori doesn’t work,” while it clearly is working very well for your family. Rely on your own experience, not hearsay from other parents.

There are some characteristics one finds in any Montessori school, even though they will show up differently, depending on the age of the child. Generally, they are:

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  • A Student-Centered Environment: There is an emphasis on student’s learning, less on teachers’ teaching.
  • A Responsive Prepared Environment: The environment should be designed to meet the needs, interests, abilities, and development of the students in the class.
  • A Focus on Community Building and Cooperation while Supporting Individual Progress and Development: While the child lives within a larger community of children, each student is viewed as a universe of one.
  • Hands On Learning: In Montessori classrooms, students rarely learn from text or workbooks. In all cases, direct personal hands-on contact with either real things or with concrete models that bring abstract concepts to life allow children to learn with much deeper understanding.
  • Spontaneous Activity: Any true Montessori environment encourages children to move about, within reasonable limits of appropriate behavior.
  • Self-directed Activity: One of Montessori’s key concepts is the idea that children are driven by their desire to become independent and competent beings in the world to learn new things and master new skills. For this reason, outside rewards to create external motivation are both unnecessary.
  • Freedom Within Limits: Montessori children enjoy considerable freedom of movement and choice, however their freedom always exists within carefully defined limits on the range of their behavior. Students are expected to master the basic skills of their culture, even if they would prefer to avoid them.
  • Montessori’s Communities of Learners Mixed Age Groups: Montessori classrooms gather together children of two, three, or more age levels into a family group. There is support for the struggling student as well as academic challenge for the student to whom academics come easily.
  • A Family Setting: As children grow older and more capable, the focus is less on the teachers and more on the entire community of children and adults, much like one finds in a real family.
  • Cooperation and Collaboration, Rather Than Competition: Montessori children are encouraged to treat one another with kindness and respect. Insults and shunning behavior tends to be rare and not tolerated. We normally find children who have a great fondness for one another, and who are free from needless interpersonal competition for attention and prestige.

The Montessori Teacher

  • Credentialed: The teacher holds a valid credential from an accredited Montessori training program.
  • Authoritative: The teacher is firm at the edges and empathetic at the center, the kind of adult who responds empathetically to children’s feelings, while setting clear and consistent limits.
  • Observer: The Montessori teacher is a trained observer of children’s learning and behavior.
  • An Educational Resource: Montessori teachers facilitate the learning process by serving as a resource to whom the children can turn as they pull together information, impressions, and experiences.
  • Role Model: Like all great teachers, the Montessori educator deliberately models the behaviors and attitudes that she is working to instill in her students. Because of Montessori’s emphasis on character development, the Montessori teacher normally is exceptionally calm, kind, warm, and polite to each child.

The Child As A Spiritual Being

  • Montessori saw children as far more than simply scholars. In her view, each child is a full and complete human being. Even when very young, the child shares with the rest of humanity hopes, dreams and fears, emotions, and longing. Montessori consciously designs social communities and educational experiences that cultivate the child’s sense of independence, self-respect, love of peace, passion for work done well, and the value of all life.
  • Service to Others: Montessori’s spiritual perspective leads Montessori schools to consciously organize programs of community service ranging from daily contributions to others within the class or school setting.

What to Look for in a Secondary School

In the past 20 years there has been a movement away from the traditional industrial model of high school education toward an agricultural model – meaning one that is more organic and nurturing, and that are more focused on the gifts of the individual and a healthy community life. If you are considering Clark Montessori for next school year, come to a tour, ask questions (and even though you won’t get to see everything in one tour), keep in mind the bullet points from the previous page, and look for the points as well as the following things.

What is Best Practice Secondary Education?

  • Student-centered classroom with a sense of community. Looks like: The classroom set up is versatile so that students can work individually or in groups. Teachers teach in a variety of modes – whole class, small group and individual lessons.
  • Seminar used as a tool for respect, listening skills, and the development insight and understanding, and a building block for community. Looks like: Students in small or large group conversations, referencing text, responding to one another’s comments.
  • Curriculum developed by passionate teachers that encourages both convergent and divergent thinking.
  • Hands-on work that connects the themes and concepts learned in class.
  • Multi-layered projects that allow for a variety of modes of learning.
  • Blocks of work time that last for at least 1.5 hours. This allows for collaborative projects and hands on activities.
  • Variety of instructional and assessment practices including clear objectives, rubrics, and self-evaluation. Looks like: Students are engaged in projects that interweave subject areas. Ask about field studies and look for project work displayed in classrooms. Peek over the students’ shoulders and look at the interesting packets of project work they are engaged in.
  • A focus on service learning with the support of instructional lessons. Looks like: Meaningful service work happens when students are prepared for the work of the heart. This is an essential component to a developmentally appropriate curriculum for the adolescent.

What makes it Montessori?
The parts of the school that “make it Montessori” are harder to see with the eye, but feel free to ask questions and trust your instinct about what you notice.

The Montessori Learning Environment

  • A curricular context for cosmic education – in what way does the coursework encourage the adolescent to find her place in society?
  • A curricular context that fosters a sense of hope and progression of the human spirit. This curriculum includes action in stewardship of the earth and humanity.
  • A structure in place for the care of the environment. Looks Like: Charts for classroom maintenance and jobs so that everybody feels responsible for the classroom.
  • Opportunities for economic independence are not an attempt to create a love of money, but to help the adolescent feel useful, capable of effort, and that he is making progress toward his own transition to adulthood. Looks like: mini economies or micro businesses that students can be involved in. At Clark there have been a number of small businesses: wood fired pizzas from our pizza oven, honey from our hives, eggs from our chickens. Mostly students are compelled to find ways to make money with the expectation to pay half of their field study fees.

The Montessori Teacher

  • Student and teacher interactions that exhibit courtesy and respect. This includes using soft voices in the classroom. Looks like: Teachers and students clearly on task and speaking appropriately for the situation – a little more loudly when addressing the whole group, and very softly when in small group.
  • Whole to part (and part to whole) learning – What is the big picture that will pique the curiosity and draw the adolescent into the work? The teacher reminds students to move between the whole to the parts and back again to help them understand relationships and concepts rather than facts in isolation. Field studies apply the concepts of “Pedagogy of Place”. These studies take students into the world, show them concretely the concepts they have studied in abstraction, and help them develop compassion for all of life.
  • De-emphasis on competition and re-emphasis on cooperation. How do we encourage a sense of generosity and abundance rather than scarcity and fear? Activities and lessons are designed to encourage students to understand that “Everybody does better when everybody does better.”

The Child As A Spiritual Being

  • The adolescent is the social infant and as such must be treated with great care and tenderness. He needs the guidance of wisdom, compassion, and clarity on the part of the adult. Just as the adult creates a safe haven for the human infant’s “absorbent mind”, now the adult creates an environment for the social newborn in which the potential for “valorization of the personality” (development of character) is optimized. Field studies and meaningful service work are two very essential components of the Montessori high school that guide the adolescent to develop a sense of stewardship and the heart of compassion.